Beyond babysitting: When grandparents take on primary care roles for their grandchildren
'She's not just babysitting them, she's really making a huge impact on who they're going to be"
My mother recently told me she didn't remember her thirties.
She said the entire decade was a blur in survival mode. Her life was much like mine is now: raising three young kids fairly close in age; both her and my father working full-time; and volunteering in her 'spare time.' While my dad was helpful, cooking the majority of suppers and leading nighttime bath routines, the lack of additional family support nearby meant they rarely got to spend any time together as a couple. "Me" time was a foreign concept.
Fast forward 30 years and my parents are fully enjoying their retirement, splitting their time between their home at a lake in Saskatchewan and winters in Mexico. I don't blame my mother for wanting to protect this time where she and dad can travel while they still have their health, where they can nurture their own interests and hobbies that they never had time to invest in while they were raising us.
Don't get me wrong, my mom has done a lot for us over the years. She has put countless hours into helping with projects around my home and yard and the kids look forward to cooking or crafting with her when she visits, but taking care of young children for extended periods is something she (and my dad) find draining.
My experience as a mother has been vastly different. We have three kids, ages seven, five and two. My husband and I work full-time. We both have volunteer commitments. But we also have the luxury of pursuing our own interests. While my thirties are busy to say the least, I feel like I'm not just surviving, I'm enjoying life. And I credit much of that to my mother-in-law.
When I went back to work after my second maternity leave, my mother-in-law moved from her home in rural Saskatchewan, three hours from Regina, into the city. The arrangement was that instead of paying for daycare, we would rent her an apartment within walking distance of our house and she would take care of the kids during the day.
I can't even count the number of times I've gone to work leaving a sick kid at home (something that you couldn't do with traditional daycare). All winter she bundled up the two youngest and walked them to my son's pre-school and back, something my work schedule doesn't allow for. She makes meals and does laundry and stays late when we need support in the evening. My mother-in-law is in essence co-parenting with my husband and I.
I'm grateful for this incredible support but, like every relationship, it requires work.
Just ask anyone who is preparing to spend an extended time with family over the holidays. Issues around boundaries, conflicting parenting styles and managing expectations can be a source of tension and put a strain on relationships.
I've sought out wisdom from a few people who I've witnessed navigating this relationship with grace.
Sandra Fowler lives with her husband on a farm about a two-hour drive from Regina. This winter and spring, after her daughter Hillary Aitken returned to work full-time, there was a gap in childcare.
"There was a real lack of affordable daycare in the 12- to 18-month range, and we couldn't find a solution that worked for us," said Aitken. "The kids are so little and the time with them is so precious that it felt too early to put them both in childcare and mom offered to help out."
"Helping out" meant making the two-hour drive in to take care of her two granddaughters three days a week and renting a room in the basement of a nearby friend's home for Fowler to stay in while she was in Regina.
Fowler said she has learned important lessons about maintaining personal space and boundaries by sharing her farmyard with her other daughter.
"I've heard lots of stories of how people with the best intentions just try to impose their values on their son- or daughter-in-law or their own kids. I don't want to do that."
I think as much as I encouraged mom to be a little more strict, she also encouraged me to loosen up a bit and not worry about things too much.- Hillary Aitken
Having her own space and setting some personal boundaries was important to Fowler.
"If I was here 24 hours a day there can be issues that come up with what's your business and what isn't your business," Fowler said.
She was also aware that she and her daughter have different rules around certain things, like sugary treats. She admits she doesn't follow her daughter's rules, but tries not to bend them too much. She said Aitken looks the other way because "you need to come with flexibility and know one rule isn't absolutely right for everybody."
Fowler said part of that just comes with experience: "I raised my own kids and I know when I first started parenting I had all these ideals, and as the days went on, and the years went on, you relax a bit."
At first Aitken was apprehensive about her mom having such an active role in her day-to-day life. She imagined worst case scenarios where she, her husband and mom would all disagree on parenting approaches. She was afraid this arrangement would put a strain on their relationships and that her mother would be exhausted and wouldn't be having fun with the grandkids anymore.
She said this experience worked out far better than she had imagined.
"I think as much as I encouraged mom to be a little more strict, she also encouraged me to loosen up a bit and not worry about things too much."
Her youngest daughter will be old enough to go to daycare soon, and Fowler will be busier on the farm in the summer, so she said she's going to miss this time she's been able to spend with her granddaughters. She feels she was able to form a closer bond with them over the past few months.
"Just give your kids the gift of spending time with family, because it's precious," said Aitken.
Shauna Dunn said that at some point over the years she stopped calling her mother "mom" and started calling her "grandma."
Janet Blair takes care of Shauna's two daughters in Regina three times a week. She said it's a way of financially helping out her daughter, but more so it's about adding "an extra pair of loving eyes looking at those little people and making sure their lives are as good as possible."
Blair views her role as "the extra wheel or extra hand."
Blair takes care of her other grandson once a week, too, picking him up for school, feeding him supper and getting him off to his evening activity. On weekends she'll often have sleepovers with the children or take care of the kids at night if their parents have an evening commitment.
She loves the time she spends with her grandkids. She was a stay-at-home parent when her children were young.
While she sometimes wishes she could spend her days gardening, for the most part she is content taking care of her grandchildren.
She admits this active grandmother role can put a strain on her relationship with her husband.
"A lot of grandparents who are babysitting don't have partners and I do," said Blair. "I have to juggle to make sure he's got his time and the kids and grandkids have their time."
She said her husband worries that she will overdo it and exhaust herself, and it limits some of the things he'd like to be doing as a retired couple. It's also meant that most of Blair's conversations with her daughter now involve reminders that the kids don't have school one day or planning the calendar for the month.
I'm highly aware that she's not just babysitting themshe's really making a huge impact on who they're going to be as people.- Shaunna Dunn
"The time we get to spend together and talk about life is few and far between," said Dunn.
Watching her children do after school crafts with her mother makes her realize how important these activities were in shaping the person she has become. Dunn's enjoyed watching her children build strong memories with their grandmother.
"I'm highly aware that she's not just babysitting them she's really making a huge impact on who they're going to be as people."
It's hard to have any secrets when another person is in your home every day. My mother-in-law knows what's in our fridge, what mail we get, she sees the notes from the school before we do.
There have been moments where I've felt like my mother-in-law has taken over some of the roles I would have as a wife/mother. She's heard all about my husband's day at work before I have or she has more of a relationship with my kids' school than I do because she's the one interacting with the teacher and other parents on a daily basis.
Despite this, Joyce is mindful about trying not to overstep boundaries. She'll encourage me to go and spend quality time with the kids when I get home from work instead of making sure the dishes are done right after supper.
While it's nice to have an extra hand at a festival or soccer game, I've also found it important for our marriage and our family to try and carve out some time for our immediate family whether that be a weekend or vacation out of town without grandma.
The same goes for her. Joyce has found her own community in Regina. I often worry about taking her for granted, despite us constantly telling her we can work around her schedule if she has something else she wants to be doing, but being with her grandchildren is her favourite thing in the world.
In contrast to my parents, who get tired from spending too much time with little kids, Joyce seems energized by it. I watch her with the children and admire her endless patience and am grateful that my children have such a close and loving relationship with a grandma they adore.
When I come home after a long day at work and the kids have already eaten and there is food for me to shovel down before we have to rush out the door for soccer, I'm hit with immense gratitude for this relationship and all Joyce does to support our family.
Note from the author: This story is centred around mothers because of Mother's Day coming up. I know there are many fathers and grandfathers who I could have spoken to for this piece. Stay tuned for next month's Beautiful Mess, where parental wisdom will be shared through the lens of fathers. If you have an idea for a future Beautiful Mess parenting story please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beautiful Mess is a series that aims to glean wisdom from parents.
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- Embracing life with 2 children who are 'predictably unpredictable'
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